Champions League: Bate vindicate Platini
Minsk does not have much of a footballing pedigree. Indeed, the Belarus capital may rightly be regarded as one of the game’s European outposts.
But a week ago, its sole Champions League representative struck a blow not only for Europe’s minnows but for Michel Platini, the Uefa President, whose efforts to create a more level playing field may not be universally popular but who has steadfastly refused to waver from his beliefs with regard to the wholesale changes made to the format of the competition.
Whilst English fans focused on the fortunes of the four Premier League teams, mighty Bayern Munich, who only five months ago were contesting the Champions League final in their own stadium, were stunned 3-1 by Bate Borisov, one of the tournament’s rank outsiders.
For once Belarus made headlines without words such as dictatorship or economic crisis. In spite of its tiny budget and precious little support from the state, Bate did more in one night to promote both its football team and its nation than the entire government could have done.
The result was not only one of the great upsets of European football but said a lot about the changing face of the continent’s most prestigious club competition. And no one will have watched proceedings in Minsk with a bigger smile on his face than Platini.
Ever since altering the format of the Champions League three years ago to make it less elitist, Platini has come in for constant accusations of watering down the tournament. Last December, matters came to a head when Dinamo Zagreb were thumped 7-1 on their own pitch by Lyon prompting rumours of match-fixing.
By constructing a competition with an increasing number of mismatches, argued the critics, Platini found himself open to barbs that he had created a well intentioned but flawed reform programme.
That’s not my view. All Platini was trying to do, and rightly so, was to launch more title-winning clubs from smaller countries into the group stage of the Champions League, thereby giving them a chance to mix it with the big boys. And why not? After all, isn’t the tournament named the Champions League? When I last checked, it wasn’t called the league for the clubs who finished second, third or fourth in their domestic leagues.
Suddenly, those who criticised Platini for including a raft of inferior clubs supposedly unable to hold their own against the elite now have a large amount of egg of their faces. True, there are not many precedents for the Davids beating the Goliaths; and true, more often than not the weakest side in the group finishes bottom of the table.
But despite the number of whitewashes, every now and then Platini's grand plan to give the smaller clubs greater participation yields unexpected results such as last week’s shock in Minsk where none of the Bate players were household names outside their own borders yet thoroughly deserved their victory.
For those who argue the Champions League is meant to be about the cream of Europe, I say this: cream is surely supposed to rise to the top. So if Bayern – or anyone else for that matter – ends up on the receiving end of a beating from one of the underdogs, then they only have themselves to blame.
And if you think that in the knockout stage of the tournament, all the spots always go to Europe’s strongest sides, think again. Look what happened to Apoel Nicosia last season when the previously little-known Cypriots reached the quarterfinals. If ever Platini’s new measures were vindicated so that smaller countries make a bigger impact in Europe's premier competition, Apoel proved the point. So did the Swiss side Basel who, also last season, fearlessly went to Old Trafford and held Manchester United to a 3-3 draw. And so, now, have Bate.
It surely has to be applauded that numerous teams are emerging and gaining Champions League experience, where previously they’d struggle to qualify against traditionally stronger opposition. The ideology behind Platini’s plans is to make the tournament fairer. In fact, he based much of his election campaign, when he took over the Uefa leadership, on helping smaller countries develop. The fact that teams get a share of TV revenue based on their performances is a huge incentive for these clubs because the revenue at stake is substantial.
It seems a lifetime ago that teams like Red Star Belgrade, Marseille or Steau Bucharest could realistically win the tournament. Even Ajax, three-time winners in the early 1970s who managed to pick up the trophy again in 1995, can no longer go the whole way because of a lack of finances. The power of Spain and England, and to a lesser extent Italy, has led to a gulf in quality and resources between them and the rest of Europe’s leagues, something which Platini is trying to directly address.
So let’s applaud his reforms. Bate, we know, won’t win the Champions League; they may not even get out of their group. But results such as last week’s against Bayern proves, as the old cliché goes, that there is no room for complacency and that on their day, or night, even the supposed also-rans can embarrass the giants of Europe.